ATLANTA — Addressing a crowd that largely stood in opposition of one of his proposals to reorganize disability services in the state, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal offered a compromise Thursday.
Deal, the keynote speaker at the Georgia Council for Developmental Disabilities' annual "Disability Day," announced plans to change controversial House Bill 831.
The bill seeks to move the Division of Rehabilitation Services from the Department of Labor to the Department of Human Services.
As Deal stood on the Capitol steps in its defense Thursday, facing him were at least a hundred people who had come to advocate for their cause, and many were wearing pins showing their distaste for the proposal.
Facing them, Deal announced a slight change in plans that would make what is commonly called Vocational Rehab an independent program.
While Deal still supports the move to the Department of Human Services, he told the crowd that, if the proposal passes, the Vocational Rehabilitation program will operate much the same as the Environmental Protection Division operates under the state's Department of Natural Resources.
The move will make Vocational Rehab a stand-alone program, which Deal said would "better serve tens of thousands of Georgians" and help the program reach its potential.
"This move will give new priority to this work," said Deal.
"We can't settle for the status quo, and making Vocational Rehab a stand-alone program is a big step in the right direction," said Deal. "This new structure will put the decision-making power in the hands of experts who understand vocational rehabilitation."
The governor said the move from the Department of Labor to the Department of Human Services will make the agency more accountable to the public and ensure that the state is using money efficiently and "taking advantage of all outside assistance" for vocational rehabilitation programs.
"This is big government getting out of the way, allowing direct management by those who are closest to the work," Deal said.
He said the change would result in more jobs for adults with disabilities. He promised that the new oversight wouldn't mean budget cuts or disrupted services.
There were a few cheers, but there were boos, too.
Scott Crain, a parent mentor for Hall County's special education program, said it was a good move.
"I think them being a stand-alone agency will allow them a little more flexibility to do the kinds of work that we would like to see them doing in the community as far as disability is concerned," said Crain.
Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, said it would help people with disabilities get to work faster.
"The way it was going before, people often went home after high school and didn't get a job or they went into a sheltered-workshop type of setting ..." said Jacobson.
The idea for the agency change, Jacobson said, is to combine the support system that people with disabilities need to go to work with the actual opportunity to work.
But behind them was Betsy Grenevitch, a blind woman from Social Circle, who yelled "no" when Deal brought up the proposal. She stood on the Capitol steps holding a sign showing her opposition to the proposal.
She and others who said they opposed the bill said that people with disabilities should be able to seek employment through the Department of Labor just like anyone else.
"If you look at the mission of the Department of Human Services versus the Department of Labor, the Department of Labor's mission is to get you employed," said Grenevitch. "Department of Human Services is more of an agency that hands things out to you."
She expressed fears that the agency would lose access to some $8.2 million in federal money due to the move.
House Bill 831 is being carried in the house by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, and Elberton Republican Tom McCall, who both have had children with disabilities.
Collins said he was disappointed by the concern around the bill. He said he thinks much of it is due to the spread of misinformation about the bill's intent. Collins said the move won't cause Vocational Rehab to lose money.
Instead, he said, it might ensure that none is left on the table. Collins said the state could have accessed about $1 million for vocational rehabilitation services last year that it didn't.
"We're putting it in a position that it can actually thrive, do better," said Collins.
Thursday's rally at the Capitol was touted as the biggest ever in 14 years of lobbying for people with disabilities.
Some 2,500 people were expected to attend. Among them were between 200 and 300 students from Hall County school system's Partnerships for Success program, which seeks to build relationships between students who have disabilities and those who do not.
Three students from Flowery Branch High School introduced Deal before he made his announcement.